Getting Started with Social Networking as a Technical Writer

“As Information Developers, we need to be familiar with various social networking mechanisms and how they may be influencing our customers’ expectations of the information experience we provide,” Lori Fisher, Director of User Technology at IBM stressed more than once at the Northern California East Bay STC chapter meeting on May 5. She encouraged an audience of 15 to begin integrating community experiences into our information deliverables and to leverage today’s social networking tools to improve and enrich customers’ experiences with our online documentation and other external customer services.

Lori started out by explaining that in the Technical Writing World (my capitalizations!), the audience for this type of interactive content development could be visual designers, developers, user interface experts or globalization professionals. While the ubiquitous PowerPoint deck was on hand, our chapter took the interactive approach, resulting in a lively discussion that ended up covering all the points Lori planned to make.

Here are the most noteworthy tidbits from her program:

  • “Email is dead!” While I personally don’t agree, Lori’s point was that the upcoming generation is used to texting, sharing links, commenting, rating, and generally interacting with content right here and now. Email inboxes are less compelling and tend to be neglected more and more.
  • The emerging content user expectations are changing the Tech Writer role but our existing skills are still important. We will be curating and moderating community content before massaging it into our company’s other documentation.
  • Finally! We now have an avenue to talk directly to our audience and empower users to seek out what they really need, whether it’s from our document or an exchange of comments about it. Gone are the days of writing in a “black hole” and wondering if our tome will be read.
  • Yikes! Google is the legal owner of all content translated in their tool; Facebook legally owns all content we post on their servers (including photos). If you’re worried about that, better read the fine print on those long Use License Agreements. Because of this issue…
  • Socially generated content ownership needs to be very clear. Keep static corporate pages separate and visually distinctive from pages that embrace interaction and user-created content. Supply cross-linking navigation between the two. Get legal advice in crafting and publishing clearly-stated usage policies.
  • New job opportunities are emerging around “Sentiment Analysis,” a focus on parsing out how the company’s brand and reputation are faring in the face of ongoing community discussions. On the other hand, community comments are perceived by users as more objective and authentic than direct corporate communications.
  • Choose the right social media vehicle for your audience. This goes back to the rule to know your audience and understand their current content use expectations.

Our group voiced a few concerns that Lori addressed:

  • We don’t want clueless outsiders to mess with our accurate and well-crafted words.

    Answer: Don’t use a Wiki for that type of documentation. Instead build in a Comment field on the page and invite feedback and questions.
  • With so much information on the Internet, how can users differentiate what content is accurate and what’s wrong or out of date?
    Answer: That is why rating systems (for example, Amazon’s stars) are important, so that users can get expert advice based on many others’ experiences.  
  • What kind of staffing do we need to manage the moderated comments and feedback?
    Answer: Plan on internal stakeholders taking turns to monitor the inbox. A good guestimate from Lori’s IBM perspective is ½ FTE per 10 writers.

How do you get your feet wet on the job if you haven’t yet taken the plunge?

  • If you work for a large company leverage your marketing department to create a “conversation” with customers through existing company social networking accounts.  
  • Use a wiki or other type of online discussion forum to collect and exchange user-generated content, such as code examples or best practices.
  • Encourage interactive customer comments on your content.

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